Vision for Learning

My Vision for Learning

I believe any articulation of a social philosophy of education must take into consideration the realities of the 21st century. As effective leaders and policy makers in the American educational system, we need to synthesize the realities of education today – varying curriculum choices, individual learning needs, and diverse cultural and social identities – with the changing landscape of a world in the 21st century. We must look to the past for guidance, but cannot ignore the changes that the 21st century presents.

What does it mean to be an educated person? I believe this is an important question for us to grapple with because it forms the basis on which leaders address social issues facing our educational system. There is an inherent flaw in this question, though. As educators raised and trained during the 20th century, we tend to approach the idea of an educated person from a less than current perspective. It is time to adjust our paradigm, and look at what it means to be an educated person through the lens of the 21st century. I believe the question should be clarified to be answered most effectively. What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century?

The outcome of contemporary education has always been tied to economics and sustaining the society. In earlier centuries the purpose of school was to prepare learners to be productive members of society as well as to transmit the values and norms of that society. A productive member of society maintained employment, providing a service or product for which the employee was financially compensated. It was not unusual for an employee to work their entire life with the same company, performing the same job until retirement. These jobs required little updating of knowledge and skill beyond that received in high school or college and trade school. The education system during this time did a good job of providing suitable workers for the kinds of jobs that existed before the present century. This is no longer the case in the 21st century. Department of Labor statistics reveal that learners today will hold 10-14 jobs by the time they reach the age of 40 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). In addition, many of today’s jobs such as e-business, nanotechnology and homeland security didn’t exist in the last century. If our educational system is to continue developing productive members of society, we must re-imagine what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century. From the changing look of employment, we should be able to see that acquiring the knowledge and skill for only one job or career will no longer be sufficient. If this trend is to continue, an educated person today and in the future will need to be adaptable, flexible and knowledgeable enough to move between jobs and careers. The meaning of “productive member of society” will have to change. Being productive will require more flexibility, more depth, and the ability to retool when necessary. Our educational system and the philosophy surrounding it will need to be updated.

A 20th century model, prevalent in schools today, is focused mainly on the academic dimension of education. This is evidenced in our obsession with quantifiable indicators of academic success such as state tests, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and graduation rate. These indicators focus only on math and reading performance to the exclusion of other academic content and skills. This model of education experienced yesterday and today is much like an assembly line. Students are tracked through a system, grade by grade, for a prescribed number of days and amount of time, consuming a prescribed set of knowledge. As learners progress, they are periodically tested, in the same way, to make sure they are all meeting the same benchmarks. After many years, they exit with a seal of approval in the form of a high school diploma. We are beginning to see that this linear, assembly line model of education no longer serves us in developing the life-long learners required of the 21st century. We are even beginning to hear from businesses that more and more graduates are lacking in the skill sets required for today’s jobs (The Conference Board). The present century is very different from the past. With the landscape created by the internet, technology and globalization, we must focus on knowledge as well as the development ofnew skill sets.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization, has defined a model that focuses on core content as well as a set of skills necessary to function in a digital, global, and virtual world. These new skill sets include creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem solving; communication and collaboration; information, media and technology literacies; flexibility and adaptability; initiative and self-direction; social and cross-cultural skills; productivity and accountability; leadership and responsibility. These skills, as required in the 21st century, are not specifically addressed as part of our present linear, assembly line model of education. There is a disconnect between what we presently do in our schools and what is required of workers to be productive members of society. This is why it is important for us to redefine what it means to be an educated person. Being an educated person today no longer means to know just math, science and a few other subjects. Today, an educated person must also have the skills necessary for a different world. Some may think that by addressing these skills we are packing more into the curriculum. This need not be the case. Addressing these skills also does not mean that content will be reduced to its simplest components. We cannot look at these skills through the old lens of the 20th century and an out-dated model of education. We need to shift away from this paradigm and instead weave these skills into the content students want and need to learn. I believe that when we shift our instructional approach and include these 21st century skills, the indicators of academic success mentioned earlier will take care of themselves. Students will be engaged. Engaged learners are successful learners – and will be so over a lifetime.

An engaged learner experiences the curriculum as relevant to their needs and interests. A central goal of education is to make this connection between learner and relevancy. The artful communication of curriculum is what helps the learner create an emotional and meaningful connection to the curriculum, making it relevant. John Dewey advocates for the balance of curriculum and individual through the art of teaching, what he terms “psychologize” (Dewey, p. 117). When there is an effective balance between curriculum and individual interests and needs, there is relevance. In practice in the 20th century, the art of teaching was providing students with information. I see the art of teaching in the 21st century as the ability to create the environment in which the learner is able to see and experience that relevancy of knowledge.

Relevancy can be viewed from different perspectives. If it is through the lens of adults such as teachers, administrators, and governance or political structures, that relevancy often excludes the voice of the learner. If the analysis is the sole viewpoint of the learner, the idea of relevance may exclude content and values that are considered important within the greater context of society and for future productive functioning. In order for the curriculum to be relevant, the needs of the individual must be in balance with those of the larger society. One cannot predominate to the exclusion of the other. A relevant educational experience promotes learner choice, some control over goals and objectives, freer interaction between social groups, and the possibility of seeing the impact of the learning on the greater society. Sometimes the teacher needs to take the lead in determining relevance. What is important is that through the art of teaching connections are made so that learners are encouraged to enquire, ask questions, and make connections that enhance relevancy.

The 20th century assembly line model outlined earlier makes it challenging for teachers to draw connections and enhance relevance. It creates and sustains an imbalance between the selection and delivery of content and the individual needs of students. In the classroom, students are generally subjected to content generated by lackluster standards and monotonous instruction regardless of individual student need. This occurs despite the enormous variance of interest, ability, and levels of independence within student groups. The impact tends to be student disengagement, decreased student achievement, and ultimately, decreased student motivation for learning. This model of instruction also does little to address skills necessary for the 21st century. Learners see little relevance in a curriculum driven by assessments that focus on academic achievement.

I believe that a catalyst for shifting from an assembly line, content driven model of instruction to learning that is relevant is the increased integration of technology and the use of project-based learning and other relevant, applied work. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, describes this new century as the age of the individual (Friedman). Our world has been transformed by the internet, technology and globalization. Our schools, however, have been largely immune to these recent shifts. If our learners are to develop the necessary skills to thrive in the 21st century and participate in a relevant education, they must use the tools of the 21st century. Increased use of technology requires us to shift our paradigm from the assembly line model to one of authenticity and relevance to the learner. This new model and the integration of technology go hand in hand. In this age of the individual, where relevancy is paramount to learning, the technology tools of today can foster individuality. At the same time, their effective use addresses 21st century skills such as creativity, innovation, socialization and communication. When technology is used with high-quality content, students are engaged, academic achievement improves and students exit the educational system prepared to thrive in a society that is rapidly changing. If our model of 21st century education focuses on the individual as a reflection of the real world, then our response to social issues and equality requires the same focus. A diverse world requires us to accept diversity in the education system, celebrate it and through the art of teaching, harness this diversity to develop 21st century learners. Our school cultures must celebrate this individuality.

Generally, schools have a very limited number of offerings outside of the academic realm. This is much in keeping with an outdated paradigm of education. Within the academic offerings, we feed all students the same material, providing a limited scope of curriculum that everyone is required to experience. I believe that this idea of equity does not provide each individual with what will enable them to be an educated person in the 21st century. I believe we need to open up education to provide a broader scope of content to support individualization for each learner. Providing everyone with the same program isn’t providing equity. It’s just providing the system with an easy means of delivery.  Educational leaders stay too focused on providing everyone with the same experience. This method of dealing with diverse learning styles and interests reinforces the ideas behind the assembly line model and disrespects the individuality and needs of learners. This can only be harmful in preparing learners for the world today.

We also tend to look at equity issues through the lens of the mainstream culture: white, male, middle class, average intelligence, Anglo and English speaking. Our system operates to homogenize learners, and considers that success. We devalue those that fall outside of this norm: blacks, females, special learners, handicapped, English language learners, and the poor. I believe that if a student feels recognized, they will feel they belong and be more successful. The culture of the education system needs to be supportive of diversity rather than devalue it or, at worst, become hostile. We need to merge and balance the unique qualities of our learners with the need to learn the norms of the prevailing culture. This is a fine balance that is possible to achieve. As a school system, we can orchestrate a coming together of these diverse social needs and backgrounds into the culture with neither one dominating the other. This honors the individual. When we move away from the idea that everyone should be the same – and if you’re not, you soon will be – we celebrate diversity, allow learners who may feel different to be engaged, and increase their chances for success. We need more variety in education to ensure the future success of all learners in the educational system and beyond.

A balance between society’s needs and the needs of the individual learner is not an easy one to achieve. However, I believe if we meet the needs of the individual, society’s need for educated citizens will be satisfied. Education should provide all learners with the skills and knowledge that will lead them to be educated persons. We can do this by guiding them in designing who they are, discovering their strengths and developing the whole person. The paradigm shift occurs when we provide each individual student, regardless of social label, with this ability to know who they are rather than telling them who they are and what they need to do and be.

Through this great event we call education, we initiate the young into the norms and developments of society, the “interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature society.” (Dewey, p. 3) As leaders, we must re-define what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century. The “skills and practices of the mature society” are not what they were ten years ago. We must be leaders who have a progressive philosophy. We must be leaders who think “out of the box” and not be willing to do business as usual. We must be leaders who embrace a shift in education grounded in a contemporary philosophy of education. A 21st century model provides a foundation for decision making pertaining to social issues, curriculum and the individual. With a new philosophy, we should strive to teach our learners to teach themselves and become agile as they move from job to job and career to career. Without a shift in our thinking, I believe the American education system will produce learners that fall short of their potential and find life harsh and unforgiving.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2006). Number of jobs held, labor market activity, and earnings growth among the youngest baby boomers: results from a longitudinal survey. Retrieved August 26, 2007 from

The Conference Board. (2006). Most young people entering the U.S. workforce lack critical skills essential for success. Retrieved August 26, 2007 from

Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

Friedman, Thomas. (Speaker). (2007). Sydney Institute annual lecture: The world is flat. Retrieved August 3, 2007 from


2 comments on “Vision for Learning

  1. Pingback: Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education | Working at the edge

  2. Engaging post Randy. You make key points for reflection. I would add that our school systems are closed to collaboration and outside help, period. Educators may be the “professionals” but do not have all the answers or the personnel power. Mobilizing the needed personnel in communities/society (that want to help but too often are rebuffed, ignored) is critical to breaking free of the assembly-line paradigm that is U.S. education. Innovation is a must.

    Education is like a turtle…ask a turtle to operate out of its shell and the survival strategies of that turtle will need to change in a fundamental way. How does a turtle outide of its shell begin to change to survive? I am not sure it can survive. It will be the consumers, families and students that will need to break the strangle-hold that professional educators/leaders have on our education systems. Until the consumers can liberate themselves and activate their collective influence in public education, it will be the same incremental no-change agenda. Lots of rhetoric…end result, no change.

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